How KGB founder Iron Felix justified terror and mass executions

The legacy of Felix Dzerzhinsky, who led Soviet secret police in the "Red Terror," still confounds Russia.

  • Felix Dzerzhinsky led the Cheka, Soviet Union's first secret police.
  • The Cheka was infamous for executing thousands during the Red Terror of 1918.
  • The Cheka later became the KGB, the spy organization where Russia's President Putin served for years.

Attempting to change human behavior often ends up in unimaginable violence. The career and thinking of Felix Dzerzhinsky is a testament to this notion. Nicknamed Iron Felix, he founded the infamous Soviet security organization Cheka, known for its brutal enforcement of the regime. Cheka eventually became the KGB – a dangerous spy institution that gained international prominence in the Cold War. It also produced the current Russian President Vladimir Putin. He was a KGB officer for 16 years, reaching the rank of Colonel.

THE RISE OF IRON FELIX

The 20th century was the bloodiest time in human history as a result of a disastrous combination of factors. Chief among these was the horrific intersection between the mass spread of dangerous ideologies and the advancement of technologies that could harm human bodies. In the example of the Soviet Union, a project to radically transform human society resulted in millions of deaths. The 1917 Revolution attempted to institute communism by a complete re-imagining of a person's role in their community, enacted through brute force, a novel governmental structure, and continuous re-education of large portions of the population.

A new world needed new leaders. Felix Dzerzhinsky (1877-1926) was one of the very instrumental figures of this effort. He was regarded as a genuine hero of the Revolution who did much to make Soviet communism possible. He was a true Bolshevik, arrested numerous times for his pre-Revolutionary activities with Polish and Lithuanian Social Democrats between 1895 and 1912. The arrests were usually followed by exiles to Siberia, from which he would subsequently escape. He did get locked up for a while between 1912 and 1917, when the February Revolution freed him.

Felix Dzerzhinsky in the Oryol prison, 1914.

THE RED TERROR

Dzerzhinsky had a key role in the October Revolution of 1917 that swept the Bolsheviks to power in Russia. A strong supporter of Vladimir Lenin, he was named in December 1917 as the head of the newly-created All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counterrevolution and Sabotage (Cheka). This secret police had full support from Lenin in exercising all means necessary to weed out those who were perceived to be the enemies of the state. Spurred on by a failed assassination attempt on Lenin in August 1918, the fight against counter-revolutionaries became known as "the Red Terror" – a period of mass executions from September to October 1918, carried out by the Cheka with help from the Red Army.

The Cheka's methods were very efficient. From arrest to execution would take a day. The killings happened in basements of prisons and public places. No other governmental body supervised them. While records are hard to confirm, it is believed at least 10,000 to 15,000 people were often arbitrarily killed by the Cheka during this period. The real number could possible go up to a million as some argue. The murdered were class enemies, landlords, scientists, priests or often just those who were just caught in the net. Dzerzhinsky was accepting of collateral damage, saying "The Cheka should defend the revolution and defeat the enemy, even if its sword accidentally falls on the heads of innocents."

"We stand for organized terror - this should be frankly admitted," said Dzerzhinsky in a chilling quote in 1918. "Terror is an absolute necessity during times of revolution. Our aim is to fight against the enemies of the Soviet Government and of the new order of life. We judge quickly. In most cases only a day passes between the apprehension of the criminal and his sentence. When confronted with evidence criminals in almost every case confess; and what argument can have greater weight than a criminal's own confession."

In another telling quote, he explained how he saw the purpose of the Red Terror, defining it as "the terrorization, arrests and extermination of enemies of the revolution on the basis of their class affiliation or of their pre-revolutionary roles," as per George Leggett's book The Cheka: Lenin's Political Police.

Archival photo.

The inscription on the banner reads, "Death to the bourgeois and their helpers. Long live the Red Terror!

THE LEGACY OF DZERZHINSKY

The Red Terror helped the Bolsheviks to hold onto power. As its leader, Dzerzhinsky developed a reputation for being a ruthless and staunch communist. He organized Russia's first concentration camps. Besides his work with the secret police, he was tasked with reforming the economy, popularizing sports, and other key projects for the Soviet Union. He also created a system of orphanages in Russia to take in the 5 million homeless children who lost their parents during the country's civil war and its revolution-related upheavals.

As an interesting side note, one of his other leadership roles included being the chairman of the Society of Friends of Soviet Cinema.

The Dzerzhinksy-led Cheka was transformed into the GPU (1922-1923), later becoming OGPU (1923-1934), NKVD (1934-1946) and eventually, in 1954, the KGB.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Dzerzhinksy's legacy has undergone periods of re-examination, with his monuments toppled and the truth about what his work entailed explored. On the other hand, the Kremlin and Russia's current leaders have tried to in some ways to rehabilitate that part of Soviet history, celebrating the founding of the Cheka, and having some monuments brought back.

Credit: ANATOLY SAPRONENKOV/AFP/Getty Images.

A crowd watching the statue of KGB founder Dzerzhinsky being toppled on Lubyanskaya square in Moscow. August 22, 1991.

Dzerzhinsky remains controversial to this day. While his work was brutal and resulted in countless deaths, those who support him see him as a hero who protected the Revolution. As the historian and a retired FSB officer Alexander Zdanovich said: "Dzerzhinsky founded a security service, one of the most powerful in the 20th century. It would be counterproductive to paint a portrait of this extraordinary man in black only."

Of course, others like the activist Ariadna Kozina, see whitewashing figures like Dzerzhinsky as "the glorification of all the wrong parts of the past."

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Want to forge stronger social bonds? Bring beer.

New research shows that a healthy supply of locally-sourced beer helped maintain Wari civilization for 500 years.

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  • A new analysis of an ancient Wari brewery suggests chicha helped maintain the civilization's social capital for hundreds of years.
  • Civilizations throughout the ancient world used alcoholic drinks to signify kinship, hospitality, and social cohesion.
  • The researchers hope their findings will remind us of the importance in reaffirming social institutions and sharing cultural practices — even if over coffee or tea.

Beer is history's happiest accident. Though the discovery probably happened much earlier, our earliest evidence for beer dates back roughly 13,000 years ago. Around this time, the people of the Fertile Crescent had begun to gather grains as a food source and learned that if they moistened them, they could release their sweetness to create a gruel much tastier than the grains themselves.

One day a curious — or perhaps tightfisted — hunter-gatherer hid his gruel away for a safekeeping. When he returned, he found the bowl giving off a tangy odor. Not one to waste a meal, he ate it anyway and enjoyed an unexpected, though not unpleasant, sensation of ease. By pure happenstance, this ancestor stumbled upon brewing.

That's one possible origin story, but we know that our ancestors learned to control the process, and beer took a central role in Fertile Crescent civilizations — so central that Professor Patrick McGovern, a biomolecular archaeologist at the University of Pennsylvania, argues that beer, not bread, incentivized hunter-gatherers to relinquish their nomadic ways.

Beer may also be proof of a God who wants us to be happy (Dionysus?), because the beverage* would be independently rediscovered by peoples across the ancient world, including those in China and South America.

One such peoples, the pre-Inca Wari Civilization, made beer, specifically chicha de molle, a critical component in their religious and cultural ceremonies. In fact, a study published in Sustainability in April argues that the role was so important that beer helped keep Wari civilization intact for 500 years.

Brewing social capital

Twenty years ago, a team of archaeologists with the Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago, discovered a brewery in Cerro Baúl, a mesa in southern Peru that served as an ancient Wari outpost. The brewery contained original equipment, clay storage vessels, and compartments for milling, boiling, and fermentation.

The team recently analyzed these on-site vessels to uncover the secrets of the Wari brewing process. Removing tiny amounts of material found in the spaces between the clay, they were able to reconstruct the molecules of the thousand-year-old drink. They then worked alongside Peruvian brewers to recreate the original brewing process.**

Their molecular analysis revealed several key features of the beer: The clay used to make the vessels came from a nearby site; many of the beer's ingredients, such as molle berries, are drought resistant; and though alcoholic, the beer only kept for about a week.

These details suggest that Cerro Baúl maintained a steady supply of chicha, limited by neither trade nor fair weather, and became a central hub for anyone wishing to partake. The Wari would likely make such trips during times of festivals and religious ceremonies. Social elites would consume chicha in vessels shaped like Wari gods and leaders as part of rituals attesting to social norms and a shared cultural mythology and heritage.

"People would have come into this site, in these festive moments, in order to recreate and reaffirm their affiliation with these Wari lords and maybe bring tribute and pledge loyalty to the Wari state," Ryan Williams, lead author and head of anthropology at the Field Museum, said in a release. "We think these institutions of brewing and then serving the beer really formed a unity among these populations. It kept people together."

The Wari civilization was spread over a vast area of rain forests and highlands. In a time when news traveled at the speed of a llama, such distinct and distant geography could easily have fractured the Wari civilization into competing locales.

Instead, the researchers argue, these festive gatherings (aided by the promise of beer) strengthened social capital enough to maintain a healthy national unity. This helped the Wari civilization last from 600 to 1100 CE, an impressive run for a historic civilization.

Bringing people together (since 10,000 BCE)

A Mesopotamian cylinder seal shows people drinking beer through long reed straws. Image source: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Of course, the Wari weren't the first civilization to use beer to reaffirm bonds and maintain their social fabric. Returning to the Fertile Crescent, Sumerians regarded beer as a hallmark of their civilization.

The Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh tells of the adventures of the titular hero and his friend Enkidu. Enkidu beings as a savage living in the wilderness, but a young woman introduces him to the ways of civilization. That orientation begins with food and beer:

"They placed food in front of him,
They placed beer in front of him,
Enkidu knew nothing about eating bread for food,
And of drinking beer he had not been taught.
The young woman spoke Enkidu, saying:
"Eat the food, Enkidu, it is the way one lives.
Drink the beer, as is the custom of the land."
Enkidu ate the food until he was sated,
He drank the beer — seven jugs! — and became expansive
and sang with joy.
He was elated and his face glowed.
He splashed his shaggy body with water
and rubbed himself with oil, and turned into a human
."

Tom Standage, who recounts this scene in his History of the World in 6 Glasses, writes: "The Mesopotamians regarded the consumption of bread and beer as one of the things that distinguished them from savages and made them fully human." Such civilized staples not only demarcated their orderly life from that of hunter-gatherers, they also served a key role in their culture's unifying mythology.

Furthermore, Standage notes, Sumerian iconography often shows two people sipping from waist-high jars through reed straws. The earliest beers were consumed in a similar fashion because technological limitations prevented baking individual cups or filtering the beverage. But the Sumerians had the pottery skills to make such cups and filter the dregs. That they kept the tradition suggests that they valued the camaraderie brought by the experience, a sign of communal hospitality and kinship.

The ancient Greek's similarly used alcohol as a means of maintaining social and political relationships — though their drink of choice was wine.

During symposiums, upper-class Greek men would gather for a night of drinking, entertainment, and social bonding. In Alcohol: A history, Rod Phillips notes that symposiums were serious affairs where art, politics, and philosophy were discussed throughout the night and could serve as rites of passage for young men. (Though, music, drinking games, and sex with prostitutes may also be found on the itinerary.)

Of course, we can amass social capital without resorting to alcohol, which has been known to damage social relationships as much as improve them.

In the 17th century, London's coffeehouses stimulated the minds of thinkers with their caffeine-laden drinks, but also served as social hubs. Unlike the examples we've explored already, these coffeehouses brought together people of different backgrounds and expertise, unifying them in their pursuit of ideas and truths. Thus, coffeehouses can be seen as the nurseries of the Enlightenment.

Relearning ancient lessons

The Field Museum archaeologists hope their research can help remind us the importance social institutions and cultural practices have in creating our common bonds, whether such institutions are BYOB or not.

"This research is important because it helps us understand how institutions create the binds that tie together people from very diverse constituencies and very different backgrounds," Williams said. "Without them, large political entities begin to fragment and break up into much smaller things. Brexit is an example of this fragmentation in the European Union today. We need to understand the social constructs that underpin these unifying features if we want to be able to maintain political unity in society."

So, grab a beer or coffee or tea, spend some time together, and raise a glass. Just try not focus too much on whether your friend ordered Budweiser's swill or an overpriced, virtue-signaling microbrew IPA.

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